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In 2009, Oakland-resident Lisa Truong heard about parents across California in need of diapers and she wanted to help. Through a grassroots outreach effort with fellow new-mom Rachel Fudge, the two women managed to collect 15,000 diapers. After donating their contributions, Truong and Fudge didn’t have any more plans for further diaper drives or outreach until they discovered an alarming statistic.
“We found out that diapers were not covered under other public assistance programs, like food stamps ( or Women, Infants and Children),” Truong said. “First it just shocked us that, hey this is a forgotten basic human need. Then we just got really mad.”
Fueled by their anger and shock, the pair started raising awareness around the vital importance of diapers as part of a greater safety net of support for parents and their children, ultimately leading the two women to launch Help a Mother Out (HAMO).
HAMO arrived on the scene during a time when only a handful of diaper banks existed across the U.S. Truong was further shocked to discover that even policy makers did not know that diapers were not a part of public assistance programs.
In 2015, with the help of a state fund, Truong established a publicly-funded diaper bank in partnership with the City and County of San Francisco.
This came on the heels of Lorena Gonzalez, assemblywoman of California District 80, authoring legislation ensuring diapers are tax exempted.
“For the past six years we’ve tried to make diapers (and menstrual products) tax-free and we finally got an exemption in 2020, with an expiration date of July 2023,” Gonzalez said. “The governor recently proposed to make diapers permanently tax-free in California, and the legislature will be voting to approve this soon.”
HAMO partners with a network of service providers such as public health departments and family resource centers to provide diapers to recipients. One organization that receives diapers from HAMO is One Life Counseling Center in San Carlos. Prior to the pandemic the organization was strictly a mental health center.
Jennifer Baustista, director of the newcomer and trauma program, works with foreign-born students who have arrived in the U.S. within the last five years. At the start of the pandemic, she began checking in with clients and quickly realized many of the students’ parents had lost their jobs and were in immediate need of food and other necessities. The organization began a food distribution in the parking lot of the facility and word quickly spread in the community. Bautista says they went from seeing 20 cars a day to more than 350, oftentimes with several families in one vehicle. However, the center could not keep up with requests for diapers.
“I would personally go to Target with the funding that we had and buy diapers and they were so pricey,” Bautista said. “They would only allow me to buy a few boxes because at the beginning of the pandemic diapers were limited.” Bautista would even take family members with her so she could purchase a greater number of boxes to distribute to the community.
“One of our therapists knew about HAMO,” she said. “We started to partner with them and from there everything changed. It not only helped us but so many of our families in need.”
HAMO has steadily increased distribution since fall 2019; but the onset of the pandemic saw a significant spike with a nearly 233-percent increase year-over-year. From July 2020 to June 2021, HAMO’s distribution has increased by roughly 65 percent compared to the same period the previous year.
When the pandemic first hit, Ingrid Gomez, a recipient of One Life Counseling Center’s services, and her husband immediately lost their jobs. Gomez, who cleans homes, wasn’t sure how they would pay for rent, food and basic necessities needed for their six-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. One glaring concern was diapers.
The mother of two found flyers posted around her neighborhood with information about food distribution centers and other locations offering free items, and would carpool with other families in the hopes of getting food and supplies to offset the cost of diapers.
“Sometimes my friends and I would get in lines for food distributions,” said Gomez, a Redwood City resident. “By the time we would get to the front of the lines, they would run out of food because the need was so high.”
She reached out to Bautista and soon was able to receive a regular supply of food and diapers through One Life.
“I would use what I would spend on diapers on the water bill or the electricity bill,” Gomez said, who hopes that distributions continue into the future, especially since it will take time for many families like hers to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
And as for Truong, she’ll continue to raise awareness around the barriers many families face when trying to access or purchase diapers, as well as the various communities and income classes nationwide who are suffering in silence — work she hopes attracts a lot of attention on a state and federal level.
“You know that old saying that goes, ‘As California goes, so goes the nation’’? I do think that there are a lot of policymakers and legislators in other states, not a critical mass, but there is interest in adding diapers to state budgets or local municipality budgets,” Truong said.